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4 Ways to Treat Insomnia without Habit-Forming Sleep Aids


December 6, 2017

As maddening as insomnia can be for the average person, it presents particular challenges to the person who is in recovery from addiction. Often worse during withdrawal from substances, insomnia can last well into recovery and, unfortunately, it can be associated with relapse.

Insomnia in the general population is estimated at an astonishing 33 percent, so perhaps you can take comfort in knowing you are not alone in having difficulty sleeping. Substance or medication-induced sleep disorder is recognized in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), and symptoms include taking longer to fall asleep, sleep disturbances, and excessive daytime sleepiness. Reported rates of sleep difficulties in those who are addicted to alcohol range from 25 percent up to a staggering 72 percent.

If you are experiencing disrupted or disordered sleep while in addiction recovery, here are four things you should know about how to cope without taking habit-forming sleep medications.

1. Understand the Concept of “Sleep Hygiene”

This has to do with your habits surrounding sleep. Developing repeatable, dependable habits surrounding bedtime can help signal your brain and body that it is time to wind down. Perhaps the main thing you can do to improve your sleep hygiene is to have a consistent bedtime, both during the week and on weekends. A bedroom that is quiet, dark, and heated or cooled to a comfortable temperature is also important, as is the removal (or turning off) of electronic devices. Avoiding heavy meals and caffeine in the couple of hours before bedtime tends to help with sleep hygiene too.

2. Get Regular Physical Exercise

Regular physical activity has countless benefits to people who are in addiction recovery. It helps relieve physical and mental stress, which can be aggravated by bad posture while working. Exercise facilitates the release of endorphins which naturally and positively alter brain chemistry. Mild exercise is a terrific opportunity for meditation and is great for “clearing your head.” On top of all this, multiple studies have shown that regular physical activity improves both the quantity and the quality of sleep. You can start small, with a daily 20-minute walk, and work your way up to increased physical exercise as your body becomes conditioned to it.

3. Other Daytime Habits That Can Improve Sleep

As tempting as it can be, it is best to avoid napping during the day. In fact, one form of therapy, known as sleep restriction therapy, has patients limit sleep sharply at first, and then increase it gradually until the optimum amount of sleep time is achieved. Exposure to natural bright light during the day helps strengthen circadian rhythms. If you cannot be outside often during the day, you can purchase special light bulbs that emit light at wavelengths mimicking those of the sun. These are also sometimes used by people who have seasonal depression in winter.

4. Talk to Your Doctor About Your Options

Finally, do not think that just because you are in addiction recovery, there is nothing your doctor can do to help you with your insomnia. While some sleep-promoting drugs are habit-forming and should be avoided by those in recovery, other medications can help with sleep and are not addictive. Doctors can steer you to dental professionals who make custom devices that can help with teeth grinding and snoring, and they can refer you to sleep specialists who may evaluate you for sleep apnea, which can be treated with positive airway pressure machines.

Addiction recovery presents challenges, and one that is fairly common is insomnia, whether or not you experienced insomnia in other phases of your life. As frustrating as it can be, you can be comforted by the knowledge that sleep medicine is a fully fledged medical specialty, and that healthcare professionals are constantly working on techniques, devices, and medications that can help with insomnia.

Many people in addiction recovery can overcome insomnia through good sleep hygiene, exercise, and smart daytime practices. Those who still struggle should work with their physicians because there are treatments for insomnia that are not addictive and that should not compromise your continued addiction recovery.

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